Years ago, my husband and I spent many hours with close friends planning a racial reconciliation conference. My husband and I are white. Our friends are black. Throughout the process, we experienced a few fleeting moments of turbulence but overall, the conversations were devoid of tension and conflict. That was about to change.
While seated around our dinner table the week before the event, I made a passing remark conveniently exonerating myself from the label of racist. Something flashed across Neil’s face. He uttered one short word, but drew it out as if weighing the inherent risk: “Well …” Rather than giving him space to explain, I blurted, “You aren’t implying that I’m a racist, are you?” My brave friend dared to speak the truth: “Yes.”
What followed was one of the most honest conversations I’ve ever had. My friend’s courage and my choice to listen rather than defend myself initiated a painful, humiliating process that continues to this day: recognizing and repenting of my racist biases, beliefs, and practices.
Too often, white individuals limit racism to specific behaviors such as name calling, flying the Confederate flag or committing hate crimes. We logically conclude that we’re not racists because we don’t do that.
However, as any black or minority person will confirm, racism is much more pervasive and encompassing—a fact that’s been supported most recently by a study by the U.S. Department of Education that found black students are almost four times as likely as white students to be suspended from school.
The study, which came out earlier in June, also found that schools with predominantly black and Latino students offer fewer challenging courses, have less experienced teachers and have students who are considered “chronically absent”—missing 15 or more school days. This is only one of many ways racism as an institution affects people of color.
Racism is part of our nation’s DNA and therefore, difficult to tease out. In Trouble I’ve Seen, theologian Drew Hart clarifies: “Racism structures society in a way that the white dominant group systemically advantages and over-values its own people group while oppressing and exploiting other people.” Under these terms, nearly every white person bears some responsibility for supporting and enabling a racist society.
How Historic, Institutionalized Racism Continues to Impact People of Color
Our country was founded on the false belief that northern European men were superior to everyone else—including northern European women. (As is well known, it took more than a century in this country for both women and minorities to be able to vote.)
In order to protect this hierarchical construct and the privileges that came with it, minorities were prohibited from having any voice or any power. (Though it’s true that many of the Founding Fathers were devout Christians, their choice to not grant equal rights to minorities and women cannot be biblically or ethically defended.)
The most egregious example of institutionalized racism was slavery.
Though exact numbers will never be known, researchers estimate that more than 10 million men and women were brought to the Americas against their will.
Tragically, this abuse of power did not end when the 14th Amendment was passed. Following the Civil War’s bloody conclusion, many white communities found a new to subjugate black individuals: public lynchings. It’s estimated that between 1870 and 1960, approximately 4,000 black people were lynched in America, mostly in the South and often under the approving eye of police or other government officials.
This practice unequivocally communicated that though legally free, their bodies were still fettered by the chains of white supremacy.
Not long after the last lynching was recorded, law enforcement agencies and other government-backed officials shifted tactics and began to wage yet another war on black men. This time, via the correctional system.
According to statistics from the NAACP and the 2010 US Census, black and Hispanic males comprise 58% of the prison population though they only account for 25 percent of the US population. Not only are black men incarcerated six times more frequently than white men, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, their sentences tend to be “nearly 20 percent longer than those of white men for similar crimes.”
Recent events illustrate the disparities in the judicial and law enforcement systems. If you have any doubt about how white privilege continues to impact sentencing, consider the nearly identical crimes committed by Corey Batey and Brock Turner. Both are college athletes and both raped an unconscious woman. Turner is white and Batey is black. The former received a sentence of six months and the latter a sentence of 15-25 years.
The highly publicized abuse of police power (e.g., Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice) are disturbing in and of themselves but even more so when we consider that this type of treatment has been happening for hundreds of years.
(This is by no means an indictment against all police and law enforcement officials. Certainly, the majority of them steward their power well and genuinely endeavor to protect rather than harm. However, we should not assume these are isolated incidents or excuse anyone’s behavior.)
Homeownership is another institution where racial biases prevail. Like education, homeownership is one of the primary methods of achieving social and economic stability. Like education, the path to homeownership has never been leveled let alone paved for minorities.
In 1934, in an effort to restrict black residents from buying homes and moving into certain neighborhoods, the FHA established a system of rating communities according to racial makeup. Neighborhoods where black families lived were outlined in red and often considered ineligible for FHA backing.
According to Ta-Nehisi Coates in an article for The Atlantic, “Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.” This practice continues today—80 years after it officially began. In 2015, a Buffalo area bank paid nearly $1million in fines for redlining.
So Now What?
If we want to eradicate racism, we can no longer cling to romanticized ideals about our country’s history or refuse to acknowledge how we have been complicit. After all, as Dr. Martin Luther King explained, it’s not simply overt bigotry but “racial indifference” that will sustain racism.
So how do we find the courage and the motivation to press in and break out of these oppressive patterns? Perhaps by deciding that we want to identify with and follow Christ more than we want to reap the benefits of a racist system. In my own 15-year journey, two things spur me on.
First, the desire to become like Jesus. Practically speaking, that means confessing racism as a sin, becoming a reconciler, and learning to love and value those who are not like me. Additionally, I have been deeply moved by the pain and despair that my minority brothers and sisters experience on a regular basis. It’s not enough for me to stand on the sidelines cheering them on and promising to pray. We all need to ease their burden and help them change the system.
Once the Holy Spirit breaks through our resistance and makes us aware of any racial biases and or practices, we can no longer feign ignorance. Action needs to follow conviction. Few of us will become policy makers or human rights advocates, but we all have options regarding how to respond. Consider the following ideas.
Pray for this issue.
Specifically, pray for the Holy Spirit to break through defensiveness and resistance. Pray for courageous pastors who will lead their majority congregations through corporate repentance. Pray that our enemy will not further divide the nation or the body of Christ. Pray for wise judges and for police officers who refuse to abuse power.
Listen to your minority friends.
Ask them to share their experiences of being a minority and do not, under any circumstances, try to control how they tell their narrative. It may be messy and they may get angry. Remember, their story is more important than your feelings. Honor their pain and grieve with them.
Make your own world more diverse.
Consider going to a church where you are minority members of your community and pursuing friendships across racial divides.
Repair the damaging and turn the tide.
Become a tutor. Hire, mentor, or offer apprenticeships to minorities. Embrace diversity at your workplace, in your everyday life and in your church.
Be intentionally inclusive.
If you hold a position of influence, look around. Does your organization value and champion all forms of diversity in key leadership positions? Giving a black woman the microphone so she can do Sunday morning announcements is not the same as offering her a spot on the board—and then implementing her ideas.
Even if you don’t hold any position of power, find ways to support your minority brothers and sisters. Shut down racist comments and jokes. Let them know that you believe them and help them fight for their God-given rights.
Regardless of how uncomfortable and inconvenient this conversation might feel, we can no longer avoid it. We’re at a watershed moment for race relations. Within the next 20 to 30 years, America will become a majority-minority nation. Whether or not we can achieve racial equality within that time period depends on how we respond individually and as the body of Christ.
Author and activist Jim Wallis writes in his book America’s Original Sin, “[We] can’t continue to say [we] are not racist when [we] continue to accept and support systems that are. It’s time for white people to take responsibility for our acceptance of racist systems.”
Racism will be overcome when white individuals finally decide that we will no longer tolerate systems that oppress and disqualify our brothers and sisters from the same privileges and opportunities that we freely enjoy. May God help us to heal the wounds of racism and create a new nation where all men—and women—are truly equal.